Thomas Givón is a linguist, a professor emeritus (and a part-time novelist) from the University of Oregon, as well as a guy with an interesting perspective on things. He is the author of a fairly recent book on The Genesis of Syntactic Complexity (2009). This isn’t really my area, but as I was perusing his book (in the skimming sense, not in the dictionary sense) I came across a passage on some research that might perk the interest of language learners. Especially since it touches upon a topic I have some interest in and have posted on before, the role of attention in language learning.
This particular passage from his book actually touches on more areas of second language research than you can shake a stick at. But before you read the passage at the end of this post, I would point out that the dates of the research Givon quotes from are from relatively ancient times (1992 and 1995) in the neuroimaging world.
I’m exaggerating just a bit but you might imagine a book form 2009 to be citing a bit more recent research, especially research that has to do with brain imaging considering the advances with computer technology over the past 15 years or so. But surprisingly, the findings from over the past few decades in neuroimaging (at least from ERP, fMRI studies) both older and newer studies, seem to coalesce around similar findings…
Neuroimaging and language
But what can you discover about language from an image of your brain, at least as we can see from an fMRI scan? As one article notes (PDF) (Fedorenko, Kanwisher 2009) much of this brain imaging research has looked at two major questions, and is still in search of answers:
1. Are distinct cortical regions engaged in different aspects of language?
2. Are regions engaged in language processing specific to the domain of language?
Neuroimaging and second language acquisition
Now these are broader questions about how language in general is processed. But for second language researchers questions about the similarities and differences between L1 and L2 (first and second language) use and acquisition are where the interesting stuff is happening. Is the L2 acquired in the same way as the L1? Do we use the same regions of our brain to process first and second languages? What about bilinguals, do they process different languages in different regions of the brain?
A bit older article (PDF) (Abutalebi, 2008) touches on some of these questions, coming to the following conclusions after the data collected from neuroimaging:
The available evidence indicates that the L2 (L2 referring to a language learned after your native language is acquired) seems to be acquired through the same neural structures responsible for L1 acquisition.
This fact is also observed for grammar acquisition in late L2 learners contrary to what one may expect from critical period accounts. However, neural differences for an L2 may be observed, in terms of more extended activity of the neural system mediating L1 processing.
These differences may disappear once a more ‘native-like’ proficiency is established, reflecting a change in language processing mechanisms: from controlled processing for a weak L2 system (i.e., a less proficient L2) to more automatic
A big idea: L2 speakers need to invest in higher attentional resources
…this seems to be similar to the following findings from a bit earlier research as well. Let’s have a look at what Thomas Givón has to say about some of these findings:
In a number of neuroimaging studies relating second-language acquisition, brain maturation and the brain loci implicated in grammatical communication, Neville et al. (1992) and Neville (1995) compared performance of three adult groups, all fluent speakers of English:
- i. fluent native speakers
- ii. fluent non-native speakers who learned English before puberty
- iii. fluent non-native speakers who learned English after puberty.
Groups (i) and (ii) were neurologically indistinguishable (using ERP scans), both showing high levels of activation in the left-prefrontal Broca’s region (IFG), as well as some right-parietal attention-related activation. Group (iii), of equally-fluent speakers, showed a much-reduced level of left-frontal (IFG) activation, coupled with a much higher activation in the right-parietal region.
He then goes on to ‘interpret these findings:
A tentative interpretation of Neville’s experimental results is that Broca’s area is involved in the processing of the more structured, automated, complex-hierarchic parts of language processing.
That area of the pre-frontal cortex matures beginning ca. 2-years of age and rigidifies around puberty, making it hard to acquire grammar either before 18 months or after puberty — without extraordinary investment of time, effort and instruction.
Late second language learners who overcame this neurological handicap and achieved near-native fluency, gain their fluency by investing much higher attentional resources in language processing. As we shall see further below (ch. 11), more recent neurological work on the processing of grammar is consonant with such an interpretation (The Genesis of Syntactic Complexity, 2009).
Implicit acquisition vs. explicit learning
I put in bold the point I found most interesting. Like I said earlier in this post, understanding the nature of our ‘attentional resources’ and how we use them in learning another language persists as a major issue in the field of second language acquisition. This can be seen in the raging fire of a debate over ‘explicit’ vs. ‘implicit’ theories of language acquisition. As one research writes,
“Scholars working in different disciplines, in different theoretical schools, and sometimes using different terminology have argued that L1 acquisition ~or at least the acquisition of L1 grammar! relies principally on processes of what we might now call implicit learning, whereas the acquisition of an L2 often relies on both implicit and explicit learning” (Hulstijn, 2005).
A crystal clear window into the mind or a blunt tool?
I think as neuroimaging progresses, this might be an area that a few pictures might be worth a few thousand words in academic journals, or maybe more… but then again, I’ve heard some say that fMRIs and ERPs are fairly blunt instruments for examining the incredible complexity of the human brain, but it should be interesting to see what new stuff comes up over the next few years.
Well, I see yet again I may be derailing this post as I start making more and more divergent connections, but I hope to have shed at least a few rays of light on the topic if you aren’t already familiar with it, and for those that are, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on all of this.
To follow up on this post, you might want to check out what the people in the brain language lab at Georgetown are up to, sounds like some neat stuff.
The featured image for this post was taken of the sun setting (from the opposite direction) looking back at Koko head and Koko crater on the island of Oahu, Hawai‘i.